Halifax’s first music superstar: Innkeeper’s son Joah Bates mixed with likes of Handel and Haydn

Joah Bates at the organ in Westminster Abbey 1784 Handel celebration
Joah Bates at the organ in Westminster Abbey 1784 Handel celebration

I thoroughly enjoyed David Starkey’s recent Music and Monarchy series on BBC2. In one illustration I was able to pick out the small figure of Joah Bates, of Halifax, visible at the organ console during the 1784 Handel concert in Westminster Abbey.

As the first Halifax musician to find fame in London Bates deserves far more local recognition.

Joah Bates

Joah Bates

Joah Bates was baptised at Halifax Parish Church in March 1741, son of Henry Bates, the parish clerk, who was also landlord of the Bacchus Inn, King Street.

Having attending Heath, Manchester Grammar and Eton schools, Joah Bates went up to Cambridge, where he came to the attention of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, a great patron of music (also inventor of the sandwich).

Attracted by Bates’s wonderful musical and general talents, the earl appointed him as his private secretary. Soon Bates was appointed to various Civil Service posts, though he also taught music within the Montagu family. As his influence grew Bates gained many other friends among the aristocracy.

Described as “a disting-uished musician and scholar, who excelled in the knowledge of harmony”, Bates was also a first-rate performer on the organ and made contacts which helped in obtaining an organ for Halifax Parish Church.

Bacchus Inn

Bacchus Inn

Bates was present at Halifax in 1766 when the parish church organ, built by Johann Snetzler, was installed. William Herschel, later the famous astronomer, was the church’s first organist.

A champion of “ancient” (ie baroque) music, Bates was made a director of the London Concerts of Antient Music and he also helped organise the Handel Festival commemorations held in Westminster Abbey from 1784-91, which he actually conducted from the organ.

Each festival involved more than 500 performers, including a number of singers from Halifax. The festivals involved the unprecedented public use of a consecrated building to honour the cult of a man.

At the close of the first Handel concert in 1784 King George III presented Joah Bates with a gold-ornamented walking stick and a ring containing a miniature portrait of Handel.

Bates was also offered a baronetcy but he declined it as he felt a title would cost too much to maintain.

There is evidence that Bates actually met Handel, according to Sir George Smart, who in 1784 was an eight-year-old chorister at the Chapel Royal, during the first Handel Festival at Westminster, where he was given the task of turning over the leaves of the music scores for Bates.

In 1791 Joseph Haydn was in London and he attended the last of the Handel commemorations directed by Bates. He occupied a seat near the King’s box in the abbey “and at the Hallelujah Chorus, when all with the King rose to their feet, old Haydn wept like a child and exclaimed in overwhelming emotion, ‘He is the master of us all’.”

In December 1794 Haydn went to visit the Bates family at their home in Bedford Row, London. Mrs Bates sang some of Haydn’s songs “in so admirable a man­ner as drew from him the warmest eulogiums – he had never heard them sung so well.”

Haydn himself records: “On 15 Dec 1794 I visited Mr Baze [sic], who con­ducts the Ancient-Concert from the organ and plays quite well; his wife has a very pleasant, flexible voice, her pitch is very true and her pronunciation clear.”

Joah Bates’ s wife was Sarah Harrop, originally from Saddleworth, who, while in Halifax, was a music student of Thomas Stopford, the parish church’s second organist. She became a famous singer in London.

While mixing with the elite in London Bates kept in regular touch with his family in Halifax. He died at London in 1799 and was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn. Bates’s name may still be seen on the board placed above Handel’s memorial in the abbey to commemorate the festivals.

Such are the remarkable 18th-century links of the son of a Halifax innkeeper with London society and with some of the greatest European composers of that age.